Chapter 9: The End of Preaching

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 9: The End of Preaching

In this book we have discussed various aspects of the preaching of the gospel or the proclamation of the ‘good news’ about the originating event of Jesus Christ, as I have consistently called it. We have seen what this gospel or ‘good news’ consists in; we have looked at the people to whom it is to be proclaimed; we have considered the preacher and the setting in Christian worship in which the proclamation is normally made. We have said something about the place of the Bible in the living Christian tradition which preachers represent and for which they function; we have discussed a few of the problems or questions which are raised both for preachers and for people; and we have tried to sum up the theological and moral implications of the gospel as these have been worked out in the tradition down the centuries. Now we come to our final chapter. It has to do with what I have styled ‘the end of preaching.’

As I noted at the beginning, when I sketched the way in which we were to proceed, the word ‘end’ has two meanings. One has to do with the goal or final conclusion of whatever matter is being considered; the other has to do with the purpose or intention which is in view. Thus when we speak of ‘the end of man’ we can be looking at his death and whatever may lie beyond death or we can be indicating what that instance of humanity is here for, what is the purpose or meaning of life, what each one is aiming at in what is said and done. The same sort of distinction maybe made when we are talking about the proclamation. Hence we shall first look at the purpose or intention of the preaching of the gospel. Then we shall attempt to see what is supposed to take place when the proclamation has been made -- when the sermon has been delivered to the people present. To what point or conclusion is that preaching supposed to lead, so that when it is done and over, there may be a situation or circumstance which has been, so to say, the ‘end-product’ of the enterprise?

I turn then to look at the purpose or intention which the one who proclaims the ‘good news’ will have in view as he or she prepares what is to be said and who then goes on to say it in the context of an act of worship.

When the preacher mounts the pulpit to deliver the sermon, something must be in mind. What is it that this preacher hopes and prays will be accomplished as the proclamation is made? Obviously there must be some purpose, if what is to happen is other than a talk or lecture or address on an important theme. A responsible preacher will want the sermon to bring about some significant result which will be appropriate to the message and meaningful to those who listen. I believe that we can sum this up by speaking of repentance, commitment, and service; and I shall say something about each of these.

One purpose of the preaching, then, is to awaken repentance. But what is that? First of all, it is not an emotional revulsion about oneself and one’s doings. That would be what traditional penitential theology calls ‘attrition’, which is a profoundly disturbed state dependent largely upon a given individual’s psychological-physiological make-up. Some may have this but it is not the important matter. That latter is what the same penitential theology calls ‘contrition’ -- a genuine sorrow for the ways in which one has failed to live up to the possibilities that are hers or his; and hence a sorrow for a failure in relationship with God and one’s fellow-humans -- for these two are not contradictory, as some seem to assume, but are two sides of the same coin. To fail to be one’s true human self is to fail in maintaining on one’s part the right relationship with God in the divine intention for mankind and at the same moment a failure in right relationships with other men and women and children, characterized as it should be by the caring, sharing, giving, and receiving which brings about a condition of peace and concord -- which is shalom or abundance of life.

Contrition is accompanied by a resolution to alter all this, so far as one is able to do so. It means metanoia or a conversion of one’s intentions and aims so that they may become those which are proper to genuine humanness. Such repentance, with the wish for a forgiveness that looks toward the future and is not merely regret about the past, is awakened when the gospel is authentically proclaimed. It is not that repentance precedes an awareness of acceptance and hence the opening of new opportunities; rather, it is that when one knows through the action of God in the event of Jesus Christ that one is already accepted and forgiven by God the great Lover of the world, one’s only response can be, ‘I am unworthy,’ Because I am already and always accepted by God, who is the One ‘to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid’, who knows each of us better than any of us can know ourselves, then I am impelled to see my own inadequacy, defects, failures, and wrongs. And I am also impelled to turn, or to wish to turn, to the right ways.

If a sermon does not have this as one of its purposes and accomplish this as one of its consequences, then somehow it has not been the authentic proclamation of God’s disclosing and delivering action in the event of Jesus Christ.

In the next place, a purpose of proclamation is to bring about genuine commitment, whether this is for the first time (as with some who are present it very well may be) or is a renewed response in self-dedication to God who in Christ has acted decisively for us humans and for our wholeness. Once again, such commitment, primary or renewed, need not be a matter of strong emotional reaction. That will depend, as does the act of genuine repentance, upon the particular psychological-physiological condition of the hearer. With some there may be an almost overwhelming sense of being caught up into a new life; with others, probably with the majority, it will be much more a matter of decision and purpose that is not highly-fevered but is rather a strong determination to give oneself fully and unreservedly to the Lord and to that Lord’s work and way in the world.

A sermon which does not have this for a major purpose and which fails to awaken some such response among those who are present is a sermon which might be described as ‘short-circuited’; its authentic quality is either missing or is diluted so that it is not effective. No preacher can avoid this judgment. The ‘value’ (if that is the right word) of the preacher’s speaking will be determined precisely by the degree to which it has or has not brought about a first commitment or a renewal of commitment.

Then, in the third place, the proclamation has for its purpose more than a momentary commitment or even the wish for a long-term commitment. It includes a challenge to the listeners to give themselves, to the best of their ability, to the discipleship which is service of God among humanity -- to ‘do the works of love’, with as much of the self’s devotion as can be managed. Here is exactly what one of the thanksgiving prayers in the Eucharist asks: that we ‘offer God our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice’, which means that we know ourselves to be ‘sent out to live and work to God’s praise and glory.’ It is not enough to say as sincerely as we are able, ‘Lord, Lord.’ We must also do what that Lord commands. And an authentic proclamation will intend that result.

Now it is obvious that none of these purposes of the sermon will be achieved perfectly or even adequately. This a responsible preacher knows very well. Yet there can be no excuse for that preacher’s failure to do all that is in his or her power to bring men and women to ‘ripeness’ in Christ, as the old Ordinal phrased it, and thus to be brought into a way of living which is both enabled and enriched. Set in the context of the Eucharist, this tells us that the words of the other thanksgiving in the Alternative Service Book are to become real: ‘May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world’; and with this there go the final words of that prayer, ‘Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole world live to praise your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

The over-arching purpose in awakening repentance, establishing commitment, and requiring God’s service in the world, may be accomplished through a number of what I may style sub-purposes.’ In the preaching of the gospel, there are many opportunities, such as the following of the ‘church year’ will suggest or that will seem otherwise appropriate at a given time or place. At Christmas, for example, the main emphasis will be on the coming of God to the world, supremely for us in Jesus Christ; at Easter, the stress will be on the victory of God’s Love in Jesus Christ over sin and evil and death. At Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit with new life in Christ as its accompaniment will be the central theme. So we might go through the ‘church year’ and see that the various lections which are appointed for each Sunday and for festivals or times of special observance suggest the particular aspect or element in the proclamation which will be appropriate and desirable. This gives a richness and variety to the preaching, bringing out fresh ways of declaring the loving and delivering activity of God. There is no reason to assume that uniformity and sameness are required; the event of God in Jesus Christ is so ‘many-colored’, as used to be said, that staleness is likely only when the preacher himself is stale and the preacher’s grasp of the essential proclamation has become tired and hackneyed.

As I have been writing this last chapter I have been thinking again and again of the splendid way in which Charles Wesley’s hymns set forth both the authentic gospel and its infinite variety. In that great hymn, ‘Come, O thou Traveler unknown’ [which Wystan Auden and T. S. Eliot both considered one of the finest religious lyrics in the English tongue), the basic gospel proclamation is given: ‘Pure universal Love thou art: to me, to all, thy mercies move: thy nature and thy Name is Love.’ The hymn, ‘O thou that camest from above’ is a prayer that God’s glory shall bring those who have seen it in Jesus Christ to ‘work and speak and think for [him]’, so that each believer may ‘prove [test] God’s perfect will’, repeating the ‘acts of faith and love’, and when death comes be enabled, because death ‘seals God’s endless mercies’, to make ‘the sacrifice [of self to God] complete.’

There is another hymn by Charles Wesley which is very much to the point here: ‘O for a heart to praise my God!’ I quote in full the last three short verses:

A humble, lowly, contrite heart,

Believing, true, and clean,

Which neither life nor death can part

From him that dwells within:

A heart in every thought renewed,

And full of love divine:

Perfect and right and pure and good --

A copy, Lord, of thine!

Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart;

Come quickly from above;

Write thy new name upon my heart,

Thy new best name of Love.

To awaken the urgent desire to pray such a prayer is the purpose of all authentic Christian proclamation.

Perhaps enough has been said about the purpose or intention of the proclamation. In doing this, we have also seen how one of the consequences of authentic preaching is a determination, established in the hearts and minds and wills of those who have assisted at worship, to give themselves more fully to the service of God -- as ‘co-creators’, in Whitehead’s fine word, with God in the great work of ‘amorization’, establishing in this world (so far as a finite order will permit it) a society marked by caring, justice, responsibility, interest in others, and relief from oppression, devoted to everything positive which promotes the fullest actualization of human possibility. But we must be brought to understand that along with such dedication to service or to work, there is another ‘end’ -- in the sense now of that which comes when the proclamation has been made and there has been repentance for wrongness, commitment to God disclosed and the divine power of loving released in the originating Christian event, and when the imperative to service has been accepted and implemented in action.

What is that ‘end’? I believe that it is the bringing of God’s human children to worship and adoration. As those words are commonly interpreted this may suggest a static and altogether passive matter. As I intend them here, it is the realization of the presentness of God in the world here and now and therefore a genuine participation in the divine life. I must develop this theme.

The old Westminster Catechism opens with a grand statement. To the question, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ the answer is given that this ‘chief end’ is ‘to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ In the Roman Catholic popular catechism, a similar response is made, this time to a question asking why one has been created: ‘to worship and serve God.’ And in Revelation, the New Testament book which in highly imaginative and poetic language portrays the heavenly city, we find once again that worship is the dominant theme.

If we engage in the ‘de-mythologizing’ of the Revelation to St. John the Divine, as we must also ‘de-mythologize’ the creation stories in the book Genesis in the Old Testament, we realize that what is being said is that as human existence and the world in which that existence is set has its origin in the circumambient, everlasting, faithful Love that is nothing other than God -- we recall Wesley’s hymn, quoted a few paragraphs back, that ‘his nature and his Name is Love’, and Dante’s great closing line in The Divine Comedy about ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’ -- so also the ‘end’ toward which all creaturely existence moves is that very same Love. The biblical story is a great symphony, whose opening is the announcement of the major theme, the creative love of God in action, and whose grand finale is the magnificent and triumphant re-affirmation of the same theme. The whole story is, as it were, a love-story with God as the principal actor and the human creation called to participate in that adventure of Love at work. What can such a presentation do, save to bring men and women to their knees in adoration and praise?

Worship and work go together, as the American religious philosopher William Ernest Hocking so well put it in his book The Meaning of God in Human Experience. The Benedictine motto is orare et laborare, ‘to work and to pray.’ This motto has often been incorrectly quoted, as if it said not et but est -- that ‘to pray is to work’, and conversely that ‘to work is to pray.’ The misquotation, as so often can be the case with such error, happens also to state a profound truth. The highest work is in fact prayer; and all prayer when devoutly undertaken is an activity and not merely a state of mind nor an emotional attitude.

So I would urge that in the labor which a Christian undertakes as part of discipleship, what is required as a motivation and inspiration is worship: while genuine worship is itself something done, with as much of self as the man or woman engaging in it can manage to bring to this exercise of creaturely dependence and humble obedience. Something of what this implies has been suggested in our chapter on worship as the context for proclamation. Here I need only add that in the act of worship there is granted a glimpse of heaven itself.

Yet we need to ask what is ‘heaven’ or (put otherwise) what is the final destiny for us humans? For what do we hope, once we have grasped in worship ‘a little bit of heaven?’

Before attempting to answer those questions, it is necessary to make some further comments about what in the historical Christian tradition have been called ‘the last things,’ Often these have been taken as suggestive themes for the Advent season of the ‘church year’, although in truth that season is directed rather to the expectation of the so-called ‘second coming’ of Christ which will bring to a completion that which in the ‘first coming’ at Christmas was started. Obviously talk about a ‘second coming’. while intimated in a good deal of biblical material, belongs m the category of mythological discourse and hence presents great difficulty for many called to preach in the Church. Hence the tendency has developed to use the Sundays of the Advent season for a consideration of death, judgment, heaven, and hell -- these are the ‘four last things.’

The Christian tradition has never sought to evade the reality of human death, neither has it been remiss in calling the attention of believers to their own mortality and the importance of their being prepared to face this inescapable fact. Again, God who is sheer Love must inevitably be also adamant in the requirement that humans shall live so far as they are able in and by such love. Therefore the tradition has spoken insistently of judgment -- or to use perhaps a better word, appraisal -- both moment by moment and at the conclusion of every human life, with a further appraisal made when the entire created order is evaluated in its contribution or failure to contribute to the advancement of the divine purpose in the world.

Heaven and hell are in the picture as the two possible ultimate destinies for humankind. Heaven is the ‘enjoyment’ (‘fruition’, from Latin, is the term often used and its meaning is just such enjoyment) of God which will be granted to those who have been truly obedient to the divine will toward love: Hell is the state or condition of those who have been and done evil despite all the invitations and solicitations of God.

Now it is obvious that we are here in what I have called the realm of mythological discourse, just as much as when there is talk about a ‘second coming.’ What then is intended by our hope of ‘heaven’?

Surely the answer is that our hope for heaven is hope in God. God, in whose loving reality made known to us in these brief glimpses in the act of worship, gives us ‘joy and peace in believing’; and that God is our human destiny itself.

Unfortunately a good deal of popular talk seems to assume that in addition to God we can and should expect rewards which consciously we know to be ours. Often there has been an immoral transaction in view, as in the Victorian hymn, ‘Whatever Lord we give to thee! A thousand-fold repaid will be’, with its lamentable concluding lines, ‘Then gladly will we give to thee! Who givest all.’ Dean Inge once said in his acid fashion that this sounds more like engaging in a profitable investment in shares or bonds than like anything genuinely Christian. And I might also quote here St. Francis de Sales’ appropriate comment: ‘We are to seek the God of consolations rather than the consolations given by God.’

We are to seek God. God is the end of all our human striving; and to be accepted into the divine life and made forever a sharer in the divine love is the goal or end of which worship is the intimation and the invitation. How that will take place is a matter about which we do not possess information. Yet the Christian trust in God assures us that God will do for us ‘more than we ask or think.’ In whatever fashion is possible -- and God is the God of possibility as well as of actuality -- God will do for humankind the best that can be done. What could be better than to be taken into God’s own life where Jesus Christ has gone before? That Lord Christ, says the children’s Christmas hymn, ‘leads us on to the place where he has gone.’ And this place is in God, where all that has been accomplished in the creative advance, along with those who have been agents in that accomplishment, are unfailing remembered and treasured, for what they are and for what has been done by them.

Others may wish to be much more explicit about such things; but for my part I am content to leave it there. If God is what has been disclosed in the event to which we look with gratitude and joy, then we are glad to entrust ourselves to our creator, deliverer, and sanctifier. The long process of divine action in the world, with its beginnings in the past -- so far as we can talk meaningfully about ‘beginnings’ at all -- has been continued in every present moment and in some fashion will reach its conclusion, although we are unable adequately to think or speak about ‘absolute’ endings. The creation has its own integrity, its own freedom, and its own responsibility. These God respects, values, and employs; yet it is in God that the point and significance of the creative process is to be found. And the earnest Christian believer knows this and rejoices in it.

Another question can be asked, which has to do with what is commonly called ‘personal immortality,’ This is a Greek conception, hardly mentioned in the Old Testament and only indirectly mentioned in the New Testament. The earliest Christian way of talking was concerned with ‘resurrection.’ First of all, it asserted that the central figure in the originating event, namely Jesus Christ himself, was ‘raised from the dead’ by the act of God, after he had been crucified on Calvary. Then ‘in’ Christ, the Christian faith has gone on to assert, those who have been made members of ‘his Body’ will also be raised from death to God. The stories about Jesus’ resurrection told in the four gospels are contradictory and impossible to bring into a proper consecutive order; we have already said that this is the case. But what is the reality which the stories are concerned to declare? I believe that the answer here is that God has indeed taken into the divine life the fullness of what Jesus was and what Jesus did; this fullness is forever ‘part of God’, as we may put it. But for the Christian ‘resurrection’ means also that this same Jesus, in the Spirit which is central to what I have called ‘the stream of influence’ which the total event released into the world, is also effectual in the continuing life of men and women, as they are brought to respond to him. In all this, humankind is to share.

In that context, the Christian is ready to entrust himself or herself to the God who is indeed the creator, but also the redeemer and sanctifier. Blessed be he (Jewish and Muslim prayer repeatedly says) in whom we can have complete confidence! We are freed from ‘faithless fears and worldly anxieties’, to use a fine phrase from the American Prayer Book, and know that ‘our chief end’ is there, in God and nowhere else. Thanks be to God -- and thanks be to the Lord Jesus Christ from whose enactment of the divine Love we have come to know this reality of faith. Knowing this, we know also that everything good and right and just and beautiful and true is safe forever in that same God -- to whom be glory and praise, adoration and thanksgiving, for all time and eternity. The establishment of this reality in worship is the ‘end’ of Christian preaching.